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Low female representation blights mining despite progress in some sectors

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Five fundamental cornerstones are required for a mining operation to achieve sustainable growth over time. The most obvious of these, since it is ultimately the lifeblood of any mine, is accessible mineral resources. However, it is also imperative to have an effective, well-managed capital structure to fully support the activities of the mine, as well as its planned development and growth.

Mines also need world-class technology infrastructure that enables effective management and facilitates efficiencies, and a supportive social and regulatory environment that not only enables the mine to operate sustainably and profitably but gives effect to its social licence to operate.

Strong and diverse human resources are required too — a broad range of people who bring all the necessary skills and competencies to the operation.

While most mines have an appreciation of the first few success components, the human resources element often receives less than its fair share of attention or prioritisation. This is ironic because highly functional and effective people are arguably the most important support pillar any mine can have.

To achieve sustainable and inclusive long-term growth, the human resource component of a mining operation should be inclusive, diverse and transformed. To succeed, mines must be fully representative of the society in which they operate. In this country, that society comprises 51% women. The female representation in most SA mines still falls woefully short of this figure.

A March 2020 report by the Minerals Council SA highlighted this fact, noting that women now represent just 12% of the SA mining workforce. Many key mining and resources sectors have made some progress in this regard, with mines in areas such as gold, platinum group metals and coal having workforces that include about 19% female employees and managers.

Women students

This low female representation does not appear to be for lack of trying. Most sector participants have been sponsoring female students — in disciplines ranging from geology and engineering to environmental sustainability, accounting and humanities — in relatively large numbers since the early 1990s. Based on this student support, the industry should be at fairly commendable levels of female representation by now.

Since this is not the case, it is time for the mining industry to start asking itself why. Where are all these female graduates going, if not into mining? Why are they apparently hesitant to enter into careers in a sector that offers excellent prospects and opportunities? And why does it appear as if many women who do take up careers in mining end up leaving the industry?

This last question is particularly important. I have witnessed a trend in which women graduates enter mining company graduate programmes and reach management positions. But few of them progress to positions at senior management and executive levels. It is a concerning phenomenon, and one that requires urgent attention.

Some companies are making the effort to understand the urgency of the situation. A good example is Exxaro, which has partnered with UNWomen to improve its female representation, particularly at senior management levels. But one or two instances of determination by mines to achieve gender equity is simply not enough. It needs to be a sector-wide priority — not merely to comply with regulatory requirements or tick scorecards, but because gender equality, like diversity, is a moral imperative and a sensible business choice.

Diverse human capital is a huge strength in a complex and ever-changing operating environment such as mining. It is a proven fact that a diverse workforce, built on gender equality, leads to insightful decision-making, stronger governance, higher productivity and improved financial performance. I have been privileged to witness this truth first hand, watching a number of leadership teams with good female representation turn around the performance of companies. The experience of Implats is a good recent example of this, where a diverse and inclusive executive team has improved safety, productivity, financial performance and growth significantly.

SA’s mining sector has all the right ingredients to be a driving force in global mining and resources. We have a good foundation, a mature industry with diverse commodities, excellent universities that are still supported by mining companies, a high intake in students for mining-related courses, exceptional experience to tap into for coaching and mentoring, and an awareness of the power inherent in diversity. All that is needed now is the real will to make such diversity a reality.

  • Pantshi is principal: mining & resources at Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking.

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